Game On: the history and resurgence of wild game

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Some of the game meats D'Artagnan offers. (Courtesy D'Artagnan)
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It’s just you and a handful of friends gathering around the Thanksgiving table this year, so you toss on your vest, wool coat, and derby and head out, of course, to Washington Market.

The largest of its kind in North America, the market is comprised of dozens of blocks of food stalls in lower Manhattan, stretching from West Street to Fulton and beyond. You weave among them to procure your squash and your cranberries, and you ultimately have to decide whether to go for the goose or the grouse. There’s not a bird in sight that has a pop-up thermometer.

Of course, this is 1900, when the city offered diners a far greater array of food products and, in particular, wild game of all kinds.

“I think the market system actually promoted the consumption of these products,” food historian Sarah Lohman said when we spoke recently on the phone, citing an 1885 Harper's Weekly illustration of Thanksgiving shopping in Washington Market (pictured below). Lohman pointed out that hunted animals like bear, moose, and wild boar were regularly available “You also have to remember that ‘the wilderness’ was a lot closer in the 19th century, with freshly hunted game coming from Long Island and New Jersey. When we lost the market system, game meat disappeared.”

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Rum & Blackbird Tasting Tours Founder Moira Campbell, who hosts historical culinary tours through Hell’s Kitchen, said the now bustling and gentrified neighborhood was once home to Paddy’s Market, another mainstay shopping area for Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants who were accustomed to a broader range of game birds. Pushcarts lined the streets, overflowing with a variety of meats, produce and vegetables.

“The Department of Public Markets,” Campbell said in a recent phone call, “in cooperation with the Port Authority of New York, ordered the disbandment of the market in 1937 to widen the streets in preparation for the building of the Lincoln Tunnel. This broad-scale modernization moved shoppers indoors, and the local purveyors, who perhaps only carried a small quantity of poussin, squab, and game meats, were forced out of business.”

While the abundance of wild game essentially disappeared from the city by the 1930s, a handful of local meat shops have cultivated a dedicated following for those on the hunt for more interesting cuts beyond the New York strip.

Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market in the West Village (pictured below) has been a family-run operation for more than 60 years. Brothers Frank, Joseph, and Jerry (nicknamed “the game warden”) now oversee the shop, but say their father was ahead of his time and instrumental in exposing New Yorkers to different kinds of meat—beginning with buffalo—during the 1970s and '80s, when most people were purchasing pre-butchered, pre-packaged products.

Ottomanelli’s has since become a destination for hard-to-find imports like Red Tail deer and kangaroo (both from New Zealand), and domestic products such as Cavendish game birds from Vermont and Plantation quail from Georgia. Though the display cases overflow with a vast array of oddly shaped breasts, loins, and chops, very few of them are actually wild. The Food and Drug Administration’s stringent laws on wild game prohibit most of it from ever reaching the consumer.

Ariane Daguin, owner and founder of D’Artagnan, a leading purveyor of natural and organic meats, said that the country’s antiquated laws are not doing the wild game business any favors.

“The laws fall under the Department of Agriculture and include antemortem inspection, which doesn’t exist in any other civilized country,” said Daguin when we spoke recently, “There are faster and more accurate ways to determine whether an animal is healthy and antibiotic-free.”

It was 1985 when Daguin launched her business in New York City, distributing duck and foie gras out of the back of a van to chefs hungry to offer more eclectic dishes. She quickly realized the need to diversify, and today, D’Artagnan products are served in most of the city’s top restaurants. The company is one of the few to import truly wild game, which according to Daguin, can only come from one country: Scotland. Adventurous home cooks can order online and experiment with mild red-legged partridge as an introduction, or, for the not-so faint-of-heart, robustly flavored grouse from the Highlands.

“The easiest introduction to game birds is quail,” Daguin said. “That is, if you’re not squeamish about the fact that they’re small.” Typically weighing in at just a pound, she suggests a quick marinade, 15 minutes in the oven, and voilà!

While the exoticism of game meats may appeal to those adept in the kitchen, they can also present technical challenges. Recette’s chef Jesse Schenker is the Daniel Boone of the Meat Packing District, his ingenuity warranting two stars from The New York Times and New York Magazine’s Best New Restaurant (2010). Schenker considers game both a noun and an adjective, referring not only to the types of meats available, but also the strong-flavored and sometimes “bitter, forest, and knarly” qualities associated with certain birds.

“It’s traditional to marry sweetness and acidity to combat the pronounced iron flavor that is often present,” said Schenker when we spoke at his restaurant recently, during a brief break between the restaurant’s brunch and dinner service, “but creativity rarely begins from a culinary perspective. We’re thinking about the season. What is the environment that these animals come from? What are they eating?” Once a month, Schenker and his team present Mondays with Jesse, an experimental tasting menu where he can get wild with dishes like partridge stuffed with macaroni & cheese and collard greens, or squab carpaccio with apple croquette and blood consommé.

For local game, chef Ian Kapitan of Alobar in Long Island City, turns to Fossil Farms for responsibly raised and traceable products. Kapitan feels that the controlled environment yields a better quality and more consistent product.

“I’m trying to reduce our footprint by keeping things local as well as have a relationship with farmers,” he said, “Education through the media and people’s own interest has also shifted the perception as more information is released about the protein versus fat, and other variables. I can’t even sell a Caesar salad, but I can sell blood sausage.”

Photo of Jesse Schenker by Albert Cheung.